How can we truly bring history to life? Reflections and takeaways from the Annual Conference 2019



Some of the ideas developed during the discussion tables

History educators like learning history and want to know more. They also believe that history education is key to become responsible and active citizens. These are, at the end of the day, some of the main reasons that pushed them to pursue a career in history (and citizenship) education. Students, on the other hand, often do not choose to learn history. The majority of them follows history as a compulsory school subject, failing to understand its relevance and often finding it boring or, in some extreme cases, useless.

How can we better engage students in history? How can we make history teaching meaningful for them? It is with this questions in mind that the participants to the 26th EUROCLIO Annual Conference approached the Discussion Tables on Friday 05 April.

The tables, led by 5 EUROCLIO Ambassadors and Friends, dived into five different aspects of how to make history teaching meaningful for all students. They were characterised by exchanges, discussions, and proposed a series of concrete solutions and approaches to history in the classroom.

How to approach (European) history in an innovative manner?

How to depart from the classical frontal lesson or group work, to better grasp students’ attention? Focusing on this question, participants agreed that they would like to depart from political history, which is often considered boring by pupils. Many alternatives were suggested, including:

  • Social history and everyday life
  • The history of concepts (such as racism, civilisation, or diversity)
  • Oral and generations’ history

In this way, participants argued, students would be able to feel the history taught in the classroom as theirs, and will feel more engaged.

Participants also agreed that there are, in students’ everyday life, special hooks that can be used to connect to history. For example, students might be interested in fashion or in sport. Referring to the history of a specific trend, or to the life stories of some players, could create the opening teachers were looking for to tackle historical events.

How to make the most of artefacts’ use in the classroom?

The use of historical artefacts in the classroom was identified by participants as one of the many possible approaches to make history education more innovative. However, it is not a straightforward approach: it is not enough to bring an object in the classroom and ask students to reflect on it. The interpretation of an artefacts’ meaning requires a particular skillset.

For this reason, a proper use of artefacts is subject to cooperation between students, teachers, and museum curators. Each one, in fact, brings a different approach to the object, thus making the analysis more complete.

The use of artefacts is particularly suited to touch upon the topic of the history of ordinary people, which has been frequently referred to during the Annual Conference.

The uncapped potential of popular history

Popular history, an approach to history that appeals to the wider public by means of media, games, and literature, has an untapped potential to bring history to life. Participants listed a series of popular history means that can be used in the classroom. This list includes:

  • Movies
  • Board Games
  • Comics
  • Theatre plays
  • Video Games

If all these means could help engage students in history education, at the same time it is important to equip pupils with the knowledge and skills necessary to fully comprehend the topic at hand. For this reason, it is important to treat the material as resources, that have to be objectively analysed and contextualised. This can be done, participants argued, by promoting an interdisciplinary approach to the game or visual at hand, asking for example art teachers to participate.

Where were ordinary people? How did they react?

Where there ordinary people in the middle ages? How did the Solidarity Movement influence the life of 16-year-old students in Gdansk? These and other questions are of high relevance for students during history classes. Starting from these questions, it is possible to grasp students’ attention and not only introduce historical events, but also develop skills such as historical empathy.

The life of ordinary people can be brought to the classroom in many ways. For example, by means of the analysis of primary sources such as letters or diaries, when available. Another technique warmly recommended during this session was the use of interview, in which students are tasked to ask each other, a parent, or other possible interviewees, about the five events that had the biggest impact on their lives.

Finally, it was also suggested to reverse the question and ask students: how did ordinary people impact on big events?

How to react to history in the making?

Building on the panel on history in the making, teachers also discussed how history can best be linked to current affairs. To do so, they proposed a straightforward approach to the matter. First, they said, you should list all the current events that qualify as history in the making. Then, you can build parallels between these and past events. This parallel, participants proved with a brainstorming, is easy to draw, and connects current events to parts of the history curriculum.

For example, participants listed as cases of history in the making:

  • Global Warming, connected with the history of industrialization and with the protest generations in the 60s;
  • The migration crisis and the history of asylum seeking during the Second World War;
  • Brexit and the upcoming European elections connected with history of the European Union.

At the same time, participants across all the tables agreed that, to carry out the approaches mentioned, they would have needed more time to prepare the lessons, and a certain degree of freedom in choosing their own curriculum. They also underlined the importance of interdisciplinary approaches, that can further help students to develop historical and critical thinking skills.

The discussions originated in the discussion tables became recurrent throughout the conference. Topics were touched upon again during workshops, and additional concrete answers were proposed and agreed upon.



EUROCLIO’s 26th Annual Conference: Introducing New Perspectives and Encouraging Powerful Exchange

The 26th EUROCLIO Annual Conference took place from 4 to 7 April. More than 140 history and citizenship educators from 39 different countries met in the beautiful city of Gdansk, Poland. They immersed in the topic Bringing History to Life: making history education meaningful for all students.

The conference saw the debut of three new programme elements: a critical movie screening, a plenary workshop, and a Historiana feedback session. To dive into the conference theme participants had the opportunity to attend the screening of the documentary film “The Warsaw Uprising” before the official opening of the event. This movie is composed of original footage recorded during the 1944 Uprising, colored in a laboratory and pieced together in a fictional story. Introduced by Dr. Mazur, head of the education department at the Warsaw Uprising Museum, the movie sparked lively discussions on the concepts of history in the making, historical truth, and on the use of movies in the classroom.

During the four-day training, participants took part to workshops, discussion tables, panel discussions, school visits, and on-site learning activities, all aiming at exploring the reasons for and the ways to make history meaningful and engaging for students. With a collection of 23 different workshops, visits to 4 different schools, and in-depth discussions on the educational programmes of the European Solidarity Centre and the World War 2 Museum, participants went home with brand new and practical ideas on how to bring history to life in their classroom.

The closing day of the conference was characterized by two additional new elements. In the morning, more than 50 attendants took part to the first ever Historiana feedback session. They were introduced to new features in Historiana’s eLearning Environment that are being developed, These “building blocks” will provide more options for teachers who would like to create their own learning resources using Historiana. The feedback collected from participants will directly influence the design, user experience and functionalities of the tools.

Finally, Jacek Staniszewski and Richard Kennett delivered the very first plenary workshop in the history of EUROCLIO Annual Conferences. They discussed the theme “Why teaching history is more important than ever before”, and introduced participants to a variety of activities that can be carried out in the classroom to help students understand the complexity of historical figures and events and to encourage them to take a multiperspective view on the Second World War.

It has been an intensive conference, characterized by debates and discussions on what makes history learning meaningful. How to react to history in the making? How to help teachers in preparing students to challenge historical interpretations? Moreover, it has been a unique exchange opportunity, in which new friendships were created and networks were strengthened. Over the course of the coming weeks, we will share several in-depth articles highlighting aspects of the programme, for those who could not attend the conference, but of course also for participants who would like to refresh their memory!

“The Warsaw Uprising”: a critical movie screening

As part of the optional conference programme, participants had the possibility to take part to the critical movie screening of “The Warsaw Uprising”. The movie, introduced by Dr. Karol Mazur, Head of the Educational Department of the Warsaw Uprising Museum, sparked an interesting debate on the use of original footage in the classroom.

“The Warsaw Uprising” is the world’s first non-fiction movie on the Warsaw Uprising” – Dr. Karol Mazur

The movie was created following an initiative from the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which aims at drawing youngsters’ attention using so-called “pop-culture”. It consists of two layers:

  1. Original footage, colorized and selected by a team of 14 professionals;
  2. A fictional screenplay, based on primary sources such as diaries or letters.

“It is astonishing how much film material is there”

The screenplay follows two brothers, cameramen of the Bureau of Information and Propaganda of the Polish Underground Army Headquarters (BIP), who are sent to witness the uprising and the fighting. It uses authentic footage, sometimes with added sound, including original conversations reconstructed based on lip reading.

Would you use the movie in your classroom practice?

The purpose of the movie screening was to address the theme of “Bringing History to Life” from the very beginning of the conference. Steven Stegers, moderating the Q&A session after the screening, opened the discussion by posing the following question to participants: Would you use “The Warsaw Uprising” in your classroom practice?

The answers to the question were naturally mixed. Some participants argued that screening the movie would offer a very particular ability to depict everyday reality during the uprising. However, others argued that raw, unedited footage offers a more unbiased, realistic view of the events. Someone mentioned that he would screen the documentary in a classroom, accompanied by the question of why students think such a documentary would be developed and screened in 2019, evoking a discussion about rising nationalism.

“It really showed the chaos that a civilian felt”

It is safe to argue that this critical movie screening fulfilled its purpose: participants entered into discussions about what kind of methods are out there to bring history to life in the classroom, and what methods should be reconsidered. Although the screening was attended by a small group of early arrivals, it sparked debate, and therefore left an impression, throughout the conference.